by Gerald J. Beyer, America
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has rightly criticized Paul Ryan’s proposed draconian cuts to social programs that aid the poor. Catholic scholars rebuked Ryan for claiming that his budget reflects principles of Catholic social teaching. Ryan deserves credit for elevating Catholic social teaching to a central place in the discussion. Unfortunately, he badly misunderstands two bedrock principles of CST—solidarity and subsidiarity. He also misinterprets how these principles apply to the scourge of poverty in the United States.
Ryan correctly identifies one aspect of solidarity, namely the “recognition of the common ties that unite all human beings in equal dignity,” as he puts it. However, Catholic social teaching adopted the view of Heinrich Pesch, S.J., (1854-1926) and Oswald von Nell-Breuning S.J., (1890-1991), who envisioned three aspects of solidarity: 1) solidarity as de facto human interdependence; 2) solidarity as an ethical imperative; and 3) solidarity as a principle concretized in legislative policies and institutions.
By its very nature, solidarity requires advocating social change on the structural level. This is the case because eliminating the causes of the suffering of the wounded and oppressed requires embodying solidarity in social policies and institutions. In other words, solidarity includes but goes beyond charity to promote justice and human rights, particularly by empowering the marginalized. Charity is important, but never sufficient to meet the needs of the poor, as Pope Benedict reminds us in Caritas in Veritate. Christians must thus foster the common good through “the institutional path—we might also call it the political path—of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.” As John Paul II argued, the entire social, economic and political order should be shaped by the principle of solidarity.
In his speech at Georgetown University, Ryan claimed that “Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.” There is a grain of truth here. Solidarity does aim to allow all people to participate in and benefit from the common good. As the philosopher Fr. Józef Tischner of the Polish Solidarnosc movement argued, solidarity excludes no one. However, Pope John Paul II, who developed the concept of solidarity more than any other pope, acknowledged “the positive role of conflict” when it “takes the form of a struggle for social justice.” He also stated solidarity sometimes requires taking the side of the poor when their rights and welfare are jeopardized. Thus, solidarity does not imply “a live and let live” approach to politics; it makes demands of all of us. Solidarity does not seek to vanquish oppressors, but it always insists on the truth and challenges oppressors to see themselves for what they are, as Tischner maintained…